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Caffeinated Clint hearts Touchstone

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Watching Kevin Costner’s latest, Swing Vote, this week, and seeing that beautiful old Touchstone Pictures logo come up, I couldn’t help but feel just a little bit nostalgic, Chewbacca-fuzzy and Apple Pie-warm. It wasn’t to be the case (well, it was OK – good enough) but for a minute there, I wondered whether I might be about to watch a doozie. And it’s all that damn logo’s fault!

You all know – well, those over 30 would – what I’m talking about don’t you?

A Touchstone Pictures logo on a film was almost a stamp of quality in the 80s and early 90s. From the moment that sparkling lightning strike came into contact with the immobile bar – you knew you were about to watch a film that, if not the next big thing, would at least be a very enjoyable time.

Remember “Three Men and a Baby”? Remember how packed the theatres were on the weekend before its release – when they had sneaks? I do. I even remember, when I returned to see it a few weeks later, having to sit on the steps inside the cinema it was that packed.

But “Three Men and a Baby” wasn’t the only golden hit Touchstone had in the late 80s – they also produced two of Robin Williams best pictures, “Good Morning Vietnam” (which, like “Three Men”, packed theatres for weeks) and “Dead Poet’s Society”, the timeless action-classic “Stakeout”, Teen comedies like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Who Frames Roger Rabbit?”, weepie “Beaches”, mega-hits “Pretty Woman” and “Sister Act”, and 4-star gems like “The Color of Money”. All those films made trillions.

Thing is with Touchstone, even when they weren’t giving it their best game, they were still offering up something reasonably enjoyable – they hardly ever put a lemon in theaters. I mean, how fun were “Stakeout”, “Shoot to Kill”, “Hello Again?”, “The Rocketeer”, “Father of the Bride”, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”, “Cocktail”, “Ruthless People”, “Tough Guys” and “Tin Men”? None of those might be brilliant pieces of cinema… but they were all good fun. If anything, Touchstone knew how to make a good comedy (that seemed to be their forte) and occasionally, a good action-thriller.

Michael Eisner (who had given Paramount hits like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) was the fucking movie-making king of the 80s —- and he made Touchstone one of the best labels this side of LaBrea.

For those that don’t know, Touchstone, created in 1984, was a label that Disney came up with so that they could release more risqué pictures – films that didn’t fit the ‘Walt Disney Pictures’ name. Marketing-wise, I think it was a smart decision – I can only imagine how many teenagers would’ve stayed away from, say, “Can’t Buy Me Love” if it’d been a ‘Walt Disney Picture’. Same with “Splash” (the straight-to-video sequel was released under the Walt Disney label – maybe because Touchstone didn’t want it’s name tainted so early in the game?), which was actually the first film released under the newly-conceived Touchstone label. I doubt any teenagers would’ve been rushing out to see it – even if the trailers hinted that Daryl Hannah might be topless in it (she wasn’t – only close to it) – if it’d be released under the same label as say, “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Herbie goes to Monte Carlo”. Apparently Disney decided to create the label specifically for that film – because of some of the inappropriate language in the film, and the brief glimpses of Hannah flesh.

“We believe that, fairly or unfairly, we were stereotyped as to the kind of film we would consider for production and so there were a lot of very good scripts that we never had the opportunity to see. Kramer Vs. Kramer, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ordinary People, Wargames and of course, E.T. and several other award winning films,” said CEO Ron Miller in a 1984 interview. “We would have been prevented from doing those films under the Disney banner for a variety of reasons, including language, intensity, adult situations and violence. Yet, they are all excellent films of very high quality. We believe that will definitely change with Touchstone and we will attract a broader range of production and creative talent for future filmmaking efforts.”

“To the average movie-goer, the name Disney has special meaning, imagery and identification,” explained Miller. “The Walt Disney name is probably the most definitive and, at the same time, the most highly favorable of any of the motion picture companies with respect to unsurpassed family oriented entertainment of the highest quality. However, the strength of the Disney association with fine family entertainment can have a pronounced adverse effect on our ability to broaden our marketing and production horizons. I believe that some very fine Disney films in recent years, with more adult themes, have faltered at the box office because of it. For example, films like Night Crossing, Tex and Tron. Also, as I have said previously, Touchstone will allow us to maintain the inherent strength of the Disney tradition without tampering with the legacy.”

A few months after making these comments, Ron Miller was fired.

Alas, Eisner saw that Touchstone rolled out hit-after-hit from then on – one of which was “Three Men and a Baby”, a Leonard Nimoy-directed comedy about three bachelors who are forced to care for a thumb sucking tot. Joining Tom Selleck and Ted Danson in the film was “Police Academy” fave Steve Guttenberg.

‘’You know I always knew Three Men and a Baby was going to make it. It was such a good story’’, Guttenberg tells Moviehole.

Next, Touchstone would score another huge hit with ‘’Good Morning Vietnam’’, a comedy/drama starring Robin Williams as a radio D..J based in Vietnam.

‘’GMV earned $1 million playing on only four screens; in its first weekend of wide release’’, says a spokesperson for the company. “That was unheard of. But Touchstone was starting to get used to it – everything they touched, so to speak, turned to gold”.

Touchstone were also very careful about what products they chose to make.

“They were nearly going to make Good Morning Chicago – a sequel to Vietnam. Robin Williams was interested enough. Levinson too. But it was Touchstone was pulled the plug on it at the last minute because it wasn’t ‘as good’ as the original. In those days, it wasn’t so much important that they make successful films – but that they make ‘good’ movies that just happen to be successful”, says another.

One thing Touchstone also prided themselves in was relaunching – or launching, as is the case with a few TV stars – film careers.

They loved using Dick Dreyfuss (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills”, “Stakeout”, “Tin Men”), Better Midler (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills”, “Stella”, “Beaches”, “Outrageous Fortune”), Tom Hanks (“Splash!”, “Turner & Hooch”), Robin Williams (“Good Morning Vietnam”, “Dead Poet’s Society”) and Shelley Long (“Hello Again”, “Outrageous Fortune”). They also gave Julia Roberts her first big hit, “Pretty Woman”.

As most of those actors have disappeared from the scene, so has the quality that used to be found in the Touchstone picture.

So when did Touchstone’s name start to mean, well, less?

Could’ve been when they pumped out the atrocious “Another Stakeout” (Chris and Bill got butt-raped!), but I’d say it’s more when Jerry Bruckheimer started producing films for the shingle (some may say it happened earlier with films like “Turner & Hooch”, “Blaze”, “Gross Anatomy” and “An Innocent Man”) – suddenly they were drowning in blah. Yes, he gave the company a couple of bonafide doozies, like “Con Air”, “The Rock” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but he also managed to convince them to release some of his lesser, more mediocre movies, like “Déjà vu”, “Veronica Guerin” and “King Arthur”. Suddenly the once crystal blue waters of Touchstone started to get a bit murky.

“They’ve now become one of the studios that don’t so much care for quality – but quantity”, says a former employee of Touchstone. “It’s the George Lucas situation – you make better movies when you don’t have the money or the ego”.

It’s funny, take a look at the slate of films released by Touchstone in the 80s. Then take a look at the films released by Touchstone in the 90s. It’s amazing how far down the ship sunk. Touchstone did have the odd dud in the 80s – like, for instance, the Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan-starring remake of “D.O.A” – but they’d only come along once in a while, or every few years, whereas now Touchstone seem to release mostly duds… and now-and-then strike gold with something like, say, “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

Among the films released by Touchstone in 90s? “Metro”, “The Preacher’s Wife”, “The Sixth Man”, “Krippendorf’s Tribe”, “He Got Game”, “Renaissance Man” and…”It’s Pat”. Needless to say, there’d be a change in presidency somewhere between Hanks hanging with Hannah, and Hanks hanging with Hooch.

In recent years – most people probably don’t even realize Touchstone still exists – they’ve pumping out ‘’Pirates of the Caribbean’’ movies but also, “Flight Plan”, “Kinky Boots”, “Annapolis”, “A Lot like Love”, “The Guardian”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, and “Mr. 3000”. Their hits have been few and far between – but no wonder, 8 of 10 movies they make now are rubbish… absolute rubbish! The label has been butt-fucked by cinematic whores with too many crumby ideas and too much money.

Oh, and “Swing Vote”? Yes it was amusing enough, and entertaining enough, but boy, it’s not nowhere near as entertaining as some of the other comedies Touchstone released in the 80s were. Not a shade on “Outrageous Fortune”. Not even “Adventures in Babysitting”. I doubt it’d had even been made in the 80s – it’s just such a Vanilla story (last guy to vote decides who’ll be the next President).

Look, I’m hopeful Touchstone will make us feel all warm-and-fuzzy again – is “Confessions of a Shopaholic” an indication of that? I dunno – but it’s going to take someone a little stricter and harsher more to sift through the shift before they make their way to their slate.

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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